The Magazine

In a Plain Brown Package

Australia’s doomed effort to kill tobacco sales.

Dec 16, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 14 • By P.  J. O’ROURKE
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But this decline in sales has been offset by a 154 percent increase in sales of contraband and counterfeit cigarettes coming from overseas. These cost half as much and arrive in the pleasant traditional wrappings of their brand. (Though, in the case of counterfeit cigarettes, with some risk of misspelling​—​Malrbolo.)

In calculating the 154 percent figure KPMG seems to have done its homework​—​surveying thousands of adult Australian smokers, analyzing Australian Customs tobacco seizure data, and sending out teams to pick up the litter of 12,000 empty cigarette packs in 16 Australian cities and towns.

Not to rei-mpute base motives to the Australian government, but plain packaging has been a revenue disappointment as well. KPMG estimates that, as of mid-2013, contraband and counterfeit cigarettes have cost Australia a billion dollars in lost taxes.

Do you suppose there’s organized criminal activity involved? Consider that a pack of smokes costs a buck and a quarter in Vietnam. This makes the mark-up for smuggled heroin look like the profit margin on a Walmart Black Friday loss leader.

Plain packaging encourages gangsters, depletes Treasury reserves, and fails to make people smoke less. Furthermore it led to domestic political discord in Australia.

When deliberating what color tobacco product packages should be, the government first decided on olive green. Social scientists claimed that research shows olive green is the color least attractive to young people. Never mind the camo-pattern clothing in favor among the youthful set and the number of adolescent girls who’ve dyed their hair exactly that hue. Then the Australian Olive Association took umbrage. You don’t mess with the Olive Association. They know where your martini is. The government was forced to relent and had to settle on “drab dark brown.” It is precisely the shade that all fashionable interior decorators want to paint the living room. I assume Australia’s decorators took umbrage too.

But the greatest damage that plain packaging has done is in its perversion of moral philosophy and my cigars.

One can buy genuine Havanas in Australia. Having snuffed out my Marlboro, I am presently enjoying a Montecristo Joyitas, a full-flavored cigar with an elegant 32-ring gauge. I am not, however, enjoying its cigar box. Montecristos come in a sturdy cedar cigarrero designed to preserve aroma and freshness. The box is handsomely decorated and emblazoned with the red and gold triangular Montecristo crest with a fleur-de-lis device on a field of six crossed rapiers. It’s worth the price as an object of art even if you don’t smoke. But not any more. Not in Australia.

My Joyitas arrived encased in cardboard that was flimsy as well as drab dark brown and bearing a photograph, in this case, of rotted gums. Being that a cigar box is the size of a cigar box, those gums are in heroic scale.

The attractive and understated Montecristo cigar band​—​in a rich walnut brown​—​has also disappeared. It’s been covered with a paper collar of requisite plainness. This is nearly an inch wide, deprives me of a third of my smoke, and any attempt to remove it tears the wrapper leaf and destroys the cigar.

Each of these strips of paper has been fastened by hand with scotch tape. Mindless, useless, idiotic work is typical of many government jobs, but this seems to exceed even the typical work done in the Australian parliament.

And the Australian parliament is, no doubt, working very hard indeed. There’s no end to the work to be done once moral philosophy has become so perverted that something like “plain packaging” is considered a public benefit.

Beer is certainly next, with pictures of drunken fistfights, snoring bums, and huge, gin-blossomed noses on every can. Airplane crashes kill a lot of people. No plane should be allowed to land in Australia unless it’s painted drab dark brown and bears an image of fiery carnage along its fuselage. Cars kill even more. Perhaps a banner showing lethal wrecks could be pasted across the inside of every car’s windshield. And there’s food. Make all food drab dark brown (something of a historical tradition in Australian cooking anyway) and deck the labels with naked fat men.

Fortunately there are those who are still willing to fight for property rights and freedom of choice. Raúl Castro, for one. Cuba has gone to the World Trade Organization to challenge Australia’s Tobacco Plain Packaging Act. Cuba argues that the act violates the internationally recognized rights of trademark owners and does not comply with the WTO’s agreements banning technical barriers to trade and protecting intellectual property.

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